Richter ScholarsDancing outside the
comfort zone

A study abroad student finds
community in Papua New Guinea

By Sara Kelm (G09)

Sara Kelm and Emily Harmon-Watilo

Sara Kelm and Emily Harmon-Watilo (a junior at Fox this year) decked out in ceremonial garb. The students were told that the feathers are from birds of paradise and the green headband is made from beetle shells.

Off a back road in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, an old, wizened woman tied a green beetle-shell headband around my forehead. Through simple miming, she asked if it felt secure. I nodded carefully, worried I might fling off the red-and-black feathered headdress. After she placed each piece of traditional apparel, I was ready to see my American team members – and the rest of the village . . . 

This moment began 18 months earlier when theatre professor Rhett Luedtke sent an e-mail announcing a cross-cultural study abroad trip to Papua New Guinea. An alternative to the traditional survey-like Juniors Abroad trip, this journey would go culturally in-depth, allowing students to interact closely with the New Guinean community through theatre. The team would share short scenes about life in America. In return, the hope was that New Guineans would share their stories – and themselves – with us.

Our first week was difficult and rewarding. I played it safe, spending time in silence or around my American counterparts. My interactions with the culture were meaningful, but I kept retreating. Every day was another step farther out of my comfort zone.

During our last week in Papua New Guinea, we spent a day in Kemi, a highlands village surrounded by a prehistoric landscape. My team and I were the guests of honor. Villagers killed a pig for us and cooked the meat, along with sweet potatoes, by steam in an underground pit piled with banana leaves.

Professor Rhett Luedtke walks through the village of Kemi as villagers peel kau-kau (sweet potatoes) to roast in the ground for our meal later.

Professor Rhett Luedtke walks through the village of Kemi as villagers peel kau-kau (sweet potatoes) to roast in the ground for our meal later.

After short tours of the area, we sat in the shade of huts and listened as old women sang tribal love songs to us. They cackled with delight as we ate fresh-picked oranges and put flowers in our hair. The women claimed each of us. We would be dressed in traditional garb and paraded in front of the village, which I had been dreading. I avoid attention, but I didn’t dare refuse these women. They were smiling as they took me by the hand, asking for my trust. They took us behind the huts and revealed their prized possessions: black-and-red feathered headdresses, blue-beaded belts, woven necklaces and possum fur headbands. They took their jobs of dressing us seriously and made sure each piece fit securely.

The moment I feared arrived. As I carefully leveled my head, feeling the bands on my arms and legs, I realized this was one of my defining moments. Do I exit with fear, or do I not exit at all? Or do I leave my hiding spot with my head held high?

I came out to the bright eyes of the village women. They cheered and waved their hands. I sheepishly joined the rest of my team members and slowly began to feel more comfortable. The joy on the faces of those around me soaked through my skin, infecting me so that I couldn’t help but rejoice.

The old women came up and grabbed our arms, toothlessly smiling with pride. They wanted us to dance. All eyes were on me, but it didn’t matter. Despite the uncomfortable heat and the laughter that bubbled through spectators’ lips, I danced as the sunshine glinted off my green beetle headdress.

Sara Kelm, a Richter Scholar, graduated in December 2009 with a degree in writing/literature. She resides in Newberg.

George Fox is one of 11 universities in the Richter Scholars Program, which funds independent research projects. The prestigious program, which counts Yale, Dartmouth and the University of Chicago among its members, sponsors 15 to 25 George Fox students per year.